‘To Make Gentle the Life of this World’

Fifty years ago today, on the morning of April 4, 1968, an electric sense of excitement brimmed over in the capacity crowd of 2000 that I had joined in Notre Dame’s Stepan Center. We were waiting for Senator Robert Kennedy to arrive and launch his Indiana presidential primary campaign. There was no hint we were entering into one of the most star-crossed days in the history of the country.

A 21 year old senior at Notre Dame, campaigning for Senator Eugene McCarthy, I was there to check out the opposition. It came as no surprise that Kennedy, in a bid for volunteers, would inaugurate his Indiana campaign before our largely non-voting student audience. A few weeks earlier in New Hampshire, anti-Vietnam war campaigners for McCarthy dramatically demonstrated that voting ineligibility was not necessarily an obstacle to influencing elections. I picked up many of those “veterans” at the Michiana airport, dropping them off at corners all over South Bend and joining them in door-to-door canvassing for McCarthy.

It was clear not only from the size and enthusiasm of the crowd but from Kennedy’s passion that he was a formidable opponent. He spoke movingly about the need to “end poverty and deprivation” and declared we must “bring this agonizing war to a conclusion” [1]. By comparison, McCarthy’s stump speech was studied and without a comparable spark. In a rally I attended, he managed only to fill a small auditorium. I greatly admired McCarthy for his courage in taking an early stand against the war but I felt that morning I was listening to the candidate most likely to succeed.

After Kennedy’s rally, I walked south over the grassy quarter mile stretch that, before a boom in dormitory construction, used to separate the Library from the Stepan Center. I heard cheers. I turned back, watching Kennedy emerge from the Center enveloped by students. He climbed into the back of a waiting open convertible. Students swarmed the vehicle trying to shake his hand. As the car moved out slowly, Kennedy, arm outstretched, obligingly reached out to the students. The sight of the boisterous crowd giving chase with no visible security and a Kennedy in the back seat of a convertible caused me to shudder. As a 12 year old student at nearby St. Joseph’s Grade School, I had obtained the autograph of my hero, that other Senator Kennedy, during another primary season at the back entrance to the North Dining Hall just a few hundred feet from where I was standing at that moment. As a high school senior, I had been unable to bear the pain of watching his funeral on TV.

I watched Robert Kennedy’s car exit Notre Dame down a stretch of Juniper Road that has since disappeared due to development. He was en route to the Michiana Airport and to Muncie where he spoke with another enthusiastic student crowd, and finally to an inner city black neighborhood in Indianapolis where, as he got up to speak, news of Martin Luther King’s assassination arrived. In video recordings of the event, one hears a pained collective gasp rise from crowd as he informs them of the tragedy. He speaks of bitterness, polarization, a desire for revenge and, as he had never publicly done before, about the killing of his brother. Then, calling upon the spirit of Dr. King, he talks of the need for not only for understanding but for justice. “What we need in the United States”, he says, “is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country”.

People heeded Kennedy’s call to return home. He is widely credited with having prevented riots in Indianapolis at a moment when violence was erupting across the country in black communities traumatized by the news of Dr. King’s death. Rising far above the current din of fear-mongering by authoritarians here and elsewhere, Kennedy’s call “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world” resonates as never before.

[1] The remarks quoted from RFK’s speech at Notre Dame were reported in the April 5, 1968 edition of Notre Dame’s student newspaper The Observer (http://www.archives.nd.edu/observer/1968-04-05_v02_062.pdf).

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